Report Downplays Echelon Effect

A global surveillance system known as Echelon does exist and has the ability to eavesdrop on telephone calls, faxes and e-mail messages, a European Parliament committee has concluded.

WASHINGTON — A global surveillance system known as Echelon does exist and has the ability to eavesdrop on telephone calls, faxes and e-mail messages, a European Parliament committee has concluded.

In a 250KB draft report, the committee said that Echelon — operated by English-speaking countries including the United States, Canada and Great Britain — is designed for intelligence purposes but that no “substantiated” evidence exists that it has been used to spy on European firms on behalf of American competitors.

While impressive, Echelon is not “nearly as extensive” as news reports have claimed, the 33-member committee concluded, saying the system continues to rely heavily on satellite and radio intercepts and can intercept “only a very limited proportion” of the growing amount of telecommunications traffic that flows through fiber optic and land lines.

The report, due to be finalized and released in June or July, caps a year of research that became more politically charged as the group’s investigation progressed. When representatives of the committee traveled to Washington this month, National Security Agency officials refused to meet with them, prompting the European Parliament to pass a resolution in protest.

“The U.S. has arguably aggravated this situation by its treatment of the EU delegation during its visit,” says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, which received a leaked copy (PDF) of the report and published it on its website this week.

“By snubbing them, they basically said, ‘You’re on your own, go do what you’ve got to do, we don’t care very much,” Aftergood said. “I don’t think that’s a constructive posture for the U.S. to have taken.”

Perhaps the most complete description of Echelon comes from Body of Secrets (Doubleday), a recent book by James Bamford. It says that Echelon is the name of the software package the NSA created in the 1970s to allow participating intelligence agencies to dip into the pool of information gathered from listening posts around the globe.

Analysts with access to the classified network can use an AltaVista-like search engine to forward queries through the Echelon system that contain keywords, names, phrases or telephone numbers, Bamford says.

Last June, the European parliament created a temporary committee to investigate how extensive the Echelon system — operated by the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand — was, and whether it had been used to spy upon and give American firms an advantage in international business decisions.

The European Parliament mandate that created the committee asks the group to consider whether Europeans’ privacy rights are being violated, and “whether European industry is put at risk by the global interception of communications.”

The committee’s draft report, which appears to have been written before the abortive visit to the United States, says that any European Union country — that is, Great Britain — using Echelon for corporate espionage would violate its treaty responsibilities.

The NSA’s general counsel, Robert Deitz, said in 1999, “I wish to make clear that the agency does not violate the Constitution or the laws of the United States. NSA operates under the eyes of Congress, the executive branch and the judiciary, and an extensive oversight system regulates and limits its activities.”

Author: Declan McCullagh

News Service: Wired News


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